Friday, August 29, 2008

Bangkok Post: A Fighting Chance

Peace activist Ouyporn Khuankaew tells 'Outlook' why she's embraced Buddhist spirituality in her work to help victims of gender-based violence


How could a man who was a devout Buddhist, who regularly visited temples and was ever ready to give and help out the monks, treat his wife and children so violently?

Peace activist Ouyporn Khuankaew, 45, was talking about her own father.

At the mercy of her father's hot temper, young Ouyporn also often wondered why her kind neighbours who never said no to merit-making activities at temples never came to her rescue. Or why the abbot, who often visited the villagers when they were sick, never visited the wives and children who were beaten up by the man of the house.

It was her painful efforts to answer these questions that drew her to feminism.

"I wanted to understand why my father was so controlling and violent. He had an axe in his bedroom. We never knew when he would wake us up in the middle of the night to threaten us with the axe in his hand.

"No one in our village dared help us. They thought it was a private matter. People don't see domestic violence as a kind of war. That's why violence against women is the worst kind of violence, because it can happen every day, at any moment, in your own home, and most of the time by the one you love," she explained.

Feminism, she said, helped her see structural violence as the root cause. It also helps explain how patriarchy distorts Buddhist teachings to keep women down. But it did not help reduce her anger one bit. Understanding how patriarchy works and trying to change it, in fact, brought Ouyporn even more disillusionment and anger.

That led to Ouyporn's new questions: How to continue working towards change but free of anger? How to shed light on patriarchy without perpetuating the blame game? How to empower the victims of violence so they can help others? And how to make one's work a way of life that fosters inner growth?

Buddhist spirituality, she said, has not only answered all those questions, it has also helped her to undo her childhood trauma.

And, more importantly, to forgive her father.

"Sixteen years after his death, I was still burning with anger. I refused even to have his picture in my house. Now I pray for him every day," she said.

A petite, lively woman with short-cropped hair and sunny smile, Ouyporn - chosen to deliver this year's prestigious Kothom Keemthong annual speech for her long-standing work in social activism - related her journey to transcend childhood pains as if she was talking about someone else.

She was, in a way.

Indeed, Ouyporn then and now is a different person.

The practice of mindfulness, she said, has helped her become aware of the reality of impermanence and non-self of her own mind and body, enabling her to let go of the past, to feel with others' sufferings, and to cultivate compassion to all beings.

"Feminism gives me the head. But Buddhist spirituality gives me the heart," she added.

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